“High-Rises and Dumps,” “No Flowers, No Trees,” and Other Reasons Urbanists Don’t Participate

Walker:

Walker: “Where are we going to grow?”

One place where the urbanist perspective on growth and development and the anti-density perspective collide, at least superficially, is that both sides claim to want more widespread participation in the process of deciding how to build Seattle for the next 20 or 50 years.  Urbanists talk about the need to provide more information to people who aren’t already engaged, and may not have a ton of flexibility during the day, to help them engage in discussions that tend to be dominated by homeowners and retirees. Density opponents say they’d love to hear what renters and other citizens who aren’t in the typical neighborhood-council demographic have to say, but that those folks  just don’t show up to meetings. Both sides appear to agree that more participation by everyone leads to better outcomes.

Where this surface-level unanimity breaks down, however, is in practice. While casual urbanists and renters with an interest in improving the city (and keeping rents under control) appear to genuinely want an invitation to the table, no one already at the table extends a hand, and meetings dominated by people who make mean-spirited generalizations about renters (or single people, or newcomers, or lower-income groups) as a class can be pretty alienating for members of those groups who do show up. Meanwhile, daytime meetings at City Hall are tailored for those with a lot of time on their hands (like retirees) and financial motivation to show up (like homeowners who want to protect their property values), not those with hourly jobs or those who just want the city to be a welcoming place to the next newcomer but don’t have time for endless subcommittee meetings. I spent a few hours this Saturday at a 9am meeting of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, held at the Central Area Senior Center (now apparently rebranded as “The Central”), where Seattle Office of Housing Director Steve Walker faced off against a roomful homeowners (if there were renters, none identified themselves that way) who responded to  Walker’s brief presentation about what changes the Housing Affordability and Livability Committee had proposed to mitigate displacement, provide affordable housing, and preserve existing single-family neighborhoods with a barrage of mostly-rhetorical questions.

“[The] affordable housing levy that we have passed four times, that remains the darling of the country, that has built over 12,000 units of rent- and income-restricted housing that will remain that way for the next 50 years—that is the foundation” of the city’s affordable housing strategy, Walker said. “It’s the cornerstone to our city’s affordable housing strategy, and what is being proposed [in HALA] is to double down on that strategy.”

Earlier this month, Mayor Ed Murray said he would no longer pursue land-use changes in the 65 percent of Seattle’s land mass zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes off the table in response to blowback from angry homeowners and the Seattle Times, who argued that allowing duplexes and townhouses in some single-family areas would destroy the “character” of Seattle’s historic neighborhoods. (Last week, Murray indicated to me that that decision might not be final.)

If the point of taking single-family off the table was to appease angry neighbors and keep them from fighting other elements of the deal, it hasn’t worked so far. At various times during Saturday’s open-ended meeting, participants likened new residents to a “cancer” on the city (seriously, can we retire this metaphor?), suggested that Seattle could stop growth by making the city less appealing to developers and businesses, and decried the HALA committee as a secretive, closed-door cabal of developers who would have never been able to get away with proposing changes to single-family areas if all their negotiations had been public.

And, of course, there were the requisite murmurs about how everything had been downhill since former mayor Nickels fired former neighborhoods department director Jim Diers … nearly 15 years ago. “We need to talk things through in an open format, not like the secret HALA [process], Beacon Hill resident Roger Pence said. “There’s this myth out there among the urbanist generation that the neighbors are all NIMBYs and we don’t want to see anything built. That was certainly not true in the 1990s. ” Walker noted that the HALA committee included 28 people, plus many others on its advisory subcommittees, and that members were not prohibited from talking to the public or discussing the negotiations with the groups they represented. However, he said, the HALA committee—like a similar committee that came up with the widely praised $15 minimum wage compromise—needed some level of privacy just to build trust. “We had closed meetings because we wanted to generate, within that committee of 28 people with very different views on what makes sense on variety of issues, a  very engaged conversation that was not influenced by the media and was not influenced by politics,” Walker said. “And they, over time, had to develop a sense of trust to just begin to have some of these conversations. It wasn’t intended to be secret. It was intended to generate the kind of intense discussion we had, and a lot of those conversations were intense because the lot of those parties disagreed.”

Little boxes on the hillside.

Little boxes on the hillside.

Walker (along with new neighborhoods department director Kathy Nyland, who joined him for a few minutes in the dunk tank) repeatedly ran up against a fundamental difference of worldview between the city and its discontents. For example, when one man asked Walker a rambling “question” that included quotes from The Monkey Wrench Gang and Cadillac Desert, accused him of being manipulated by a shadowy group of Oz-style developers hiding “in the wings behind the green curtain,” and concluded, “Why are we going lot line to lot line, with no trees, no flowers, no grass, and why do I get the idea that it’s really developers who … on the subcommittees, because none of the neighbors I know were ever invited to serve on those committees?” Walker basically just sighed. “Where are we going to grow?” he asked. “Because people are coming.” “So you’re assuming growth?” the speaker responded. “I’m not assuming; it’s happening.” “My hope is that growth will go to other cities and other states.” Walker left shortly after that particularly discouraging exchange, but the meeting didn’t end there. For another hour and a half or so (I left at noon), residents vented about growth, the planning process, and the “dismay[ing]  “conditions that [some renters] live in.” (The speaker who made that comment claimed he had Realtors knocking on his door and sending him flyers several times a week to try to buy his old house out from under him.) Finally, one resident, Beacon HIll neighborhood activist Melissa Jonas, pointed out one reason urbanists, renters, and other groups that are typically shut out of traditional neighborhood groups might feel unwelcome in echo chambers like this one. “Outreach is not just outreach to people you agree with,” Jonas said. I think neighborhood groups sometimes believe we know best, and we don’t invite people [who disagree]. There’s a sense of, I’ve lived in X neighborhood for X long [so I have a right to speak]. Someone who just moved there has the same right to participate in that conversation, whether they’re a renter or homeowner, driver or nondriver, parent or nonparent—we all have a right to have a voice.”

Leschi Community Council member John Barber scoffed at the notion that neighborhood groups don’t welcome everyone. “I don’t know who these exclusive neighborhood groups are—our neighborhood is dying for people to come to our meetings,” Barber said. “We have a monthly newsletter that is distributed at libraries, grocery stores, by mail, and in many public places. We really want people at our meetings.” The comment reminded me a bit of companies that say, “We’re dying to hire more women and minorities, but they just don’t apply!” If you don’t make an affirmative effort to include those traditionally excluded groups (starting by adjusting the tone of your comments about the poor people and renters you claim you want to see at your meetings), your lament is going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps that fact is best illustrated by another comment the “growth is cancer” guy made after Walker and Nyland left.

“The city council has this idea that we’re all rich. I can tell you right now that [my wife] and I could no more afford our single-family house in Wedgwood [today] than a man on the moon,” the speaker said.

“They have this idea that growth is acceptable and we have to accept it, but we don’t have to accept it on growth’s terms. Because growth is like cancer and it kills cells and growth will kill us,” he continued. Once developers cash in and leave for Santa Fe or Arizona, he said, “we’ll be living with the high-rises and the dumps and all the developments that are built lot line to lot line. … There’s a minority, like those of us in this room, who will participate because we care.”

The implication was that that renters and urbanists and poor people and newcomers and minorities don’t care, because only white single-family homeowners with many years of financial investment in Seattle make the effort to show up at neighborhood council meetings on Saturday mornings. If all those other people cared, they’d be at the Central Area Senior Center. The fact that they weren’t there is proof that they don’t.

Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to prove them wrong.